Emergency Planning: Preparation is Key for Fire & Life Safety
No one can predict when a smoldering cigarette will ignite trash in a school garbage can or when an overworked machine will spark and start a fire in a hospital. What we do know is such incidents, along with many other unpredictable events, occur. According to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) data, fire departments respond to an estimated average of 6,240 structure fires in healthcare facilities each year, and 5,690 structure fires in educational facilities.
Given the frequency with which fires occur in healthcare and educational facilities, it is important to make every effort to prepare for the unexpected by developing a comprehensive fire and life safety plan. One key component of this process is ensuring the building is designed to minimize injury and property damage during a fire. This can prove challenging in light of the unique fire needs schools and hospitals face, whether it is accounting for large groups of people or providing protection for occupants with mobility limitations. To ensure critical components are in place and able to account for such needs, start by testing your plan against the acronym fire “D.R.I.L.L.”
Detect & Suppress Fire
Well-balanced fire and life safety protection plans incorporate fire detection and suppression systems. Detection systems like fire alarms provide an early warning of danger and alert building occupants to the threat of fire.
Suppression systems, such as automatic sprinklers, take response to the next level by reacting to heat to help control or extinguish flames. With proper installation and maintenance, they are an effective ally in the fight against fire. According to a 2013 fire report from the NFPA, automatic sprinkler systems operated in 91 percent of all report structure fires. When the sprinklers where activated, they were effective 96 percent of the time, for a combined performance rate of 87 percent.
Given the valuable role automatic sprinkler systems play in making buildings safer, there is a surprising potential for improvement in building design and construction. The 2013 NFPA fire report states automatic sprinklers were present in just 57% of all fires in healthcare properties and in only 36 percent of all educational facility fires. This highlights the need for automatic sprinkler systems in new construction and retrofits.
Restrict the Expansion of Fire
Because alarms and automatic sprinkler systems only address two issues – detection and suppression of fires – it is critical to incorporate fire- and smoke-blocking materials that also help restrict a fire’s expansion.
Fire-rated materials such as gypsum, concrete, firestop sealants, fire dampers and fire-rated glass divide a building into compartments that help slow or stop fire and smoke from spreading to other parts of the building. They work in conjunction with alarms and automatic sprinkler systems to extend the time during which people can safely exit the building, as well as help preserve property until firefighters arrive.
The extra time fire-rated materials buy occupants is crucial in schools as students are often present during fire emergencies—up to 70 percent of the time in elementary and secondary schools, according to the National Association of State Fire Marshals. In healthcare settings, the benefits of fire- and smoke-blocking materials are even more pronounced. Many patients are immobile or on life-saving devices. As a result, it is common for hospitals to train staff to remain with patients until firefighters arrive. Fire-rated materials greatly aid this defend-in-place approach by helping contain fires for up to three hours, making them important, if not essential.
Fire-rated components and systems also provide a secondary benefit in educational and healthcare facilities. They add a second layer of defense if students fail to recognize or heed alarms or if automatic sprinkler systems fail to perform. A case in point is the Seton Hall University dormitory fire, where approximately 18 false alarms caused students to mistakenly assume the alarm during an actual fire was false. Since the fire safety plan was almost entirely reliant on smoke detectors, the tragic fire ended up claiming the lives of three students and injured nearly 60 others. An overreliance on automatic sprinkler systems can also place people and property at risk. The flipside of the automatic sprinkler system fire performance statistic is that they fail to perform approximately one in ten times.
For the above reasons, the NFPA states, “Even a well-maintained, complete, appropriate sprinkler system is not a magic wand. It requires the support of a well-considered, integrated design for all the other elements of the building’s fire protection.”
Balancing fire protection with views into and out of spaces is an important component of fire and life safety protection plans. Inherently fire-resistant materials like steel and concrete can compartmentalize buildings; however, the downside is their opaque form restricts critical views. This can complicate wayfinding and reduce basic security, both of which help people get safely to and from spaces on a daily basis. It also prevents occupants from recognizing nearby threats during a fire emergency, including compromised areas of buildings and blocked escape routes.
Fire-rated glazing can help resolve this dilemma and bolster life safety plans by defending against the spread of fire while also maintaining visibility. Products are currently available with fire ratings up to three hours, and they can be filmed or laminated to meet impact safety requirements.
Transparent fire-rated glass wall panels are also available for areas where it is necessary to protect against the transfer of heat, as may be the case in rooms with heat sensitive medical equipment, critical care units, exit corridors and stairwells. Tested to ASTM E119 standards (the test standards for fire-rated walls), these glass and frame assemblies block the transfer of radiant and conductive heat, as well as flames and smoke. They provide a transparent glass solution where formerly only opaque materials were suitable. With proper installation, they can allow natural or borrowed light in a room, provide greater visibility for safety purposes and enhance the comfort of learning or healing environments to improve occupant well-being.
Securing Vulnerable Entry Points
An increasingly important component of life safety plans in educational facilities, and in many other buildings like hospitals, is making vulnerable entry points more secure to protect occupants from the threat of intruders. There has been much discussion around the best materials to use in light of tragedies such as the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and bullet-resistant glass is often at the forefront of the conversation.
Bullet-resistant glass can provide students with safe, comfortable learning environments while also delaying intruders and alerting occupants to a potential threat. The downside is some products have the potential to generate large amounts of flames and smoke during a fire.
While flammability would not be a concern if school or hospital fires were rare, it is important to consider the combined 11,930 annual fires in educational facilities and healthcare centers in the U.S. Applying the wrong bullet-resistant glazing to entry points could help building professionals solve one problem, and create another by reducing fire safety.
One way to address this concern is to select glazing that provides dual protection. Currently available products, such as fire-resistant transparent wall panels, are available as a single glazing panel with up to a Level III bullet resistance rating and two-hour fire ratings. This allows building professionals to bolster security without compromising occupant safety in a fire.
Leave Lasting Security
Since schools and healthcare centers are expected to operate for many years, it is critical to construct buildings to meet the fire and life safety needs of occupants now and for decades to come. This includes verifying all products meet code and provide sufficient defense against daily wear to avoid replacement in the near future. It is also beneficial to check if products have any special requirements, limitations or exclusions, and examine if they will negatively impact the fire and life safety of the building’s occupants.
If key decision makers are concerned about costs associated with a comprehensive fire and life safety plan, take the time to educate them about the performance benefits of the critical life safety materials they are purchasing. Shortchanging life safety to pad the bottom line is simply not worth it.
People send their kids to schools and check-in to hospitals under the assumption they are safe. They rely on building, design and construction experts to conduct due diligence and create safe, code-compliant spaces. Take the time to make the right decisions and help ensure the safety of the people who use our educational and healthcare facilities.
Jeff Ardwick is the president of Technical Glass Products (TGP), a supplier of fire-rated glass and framing systems.